Being inspired by ‘my brother’s keeper’ in Genesis 4

By Aian Macpherson

In chapter 4 ‘Adam’, which I previously translated as earthman, is not preceded by the Hebrew definite article ‘Ha’ (English ‘the’). So it seems sensible to go with Adam (the name) rather than earthman.

Aside from Adam (earthman) and Eve (living) other names have meaning in chapter 4. For example, Cain means ‘acquired’ and Abel means ‘breath’.

When Eve gives birth to Cain and says ‘With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man’ she sees Cain as one she has acquired and makes a link between God’s creating and her own procreating. Abel’s name refers to life but also the fleeting nature of breath.

chines shepherd

Initially outside the Garden things seem OK. Eve lives up to her name as mother of the living – children are born who take up jobs caring for the land and the animals. Eve’s words about her first child being brought forth with God’s help echo the words of her husband when God brought forth the woman. Her children bring gifts to God with no command to do so. Both grain and lamb are acceptable offerings in Exodus/Leviticus. So even without a law they have brought good offerings.

‘The Lord looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour.’

Why is Abel favoured and Cain not?

Both the brothers work within the vocation of mankind. However farmer and shepherd are age old competitors because farmers fence their land to keep sheep out. Considering the historic context, Cain, a farmer, may represent land ownership whereas Abel, a shepherd, is nomadic like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the people of Israel as they wander in the wilderness.


cain 2

The consequence of this may be that Abel’s offering is pleasing because it is offered with thankfulness. The wanderer who does not possess land knows that they live by gift. Whereas Cain who works the fields may see the land as his own and feel self-sufficient. Or maybe he has already unjustly fenced his brother out and acted inhospitably.

If Cain believes he owns the earth then his first sin is the same as his mother and fathers. He sets himself up as his own god. Rather than being thankful to God for what is gifted, Cain sees himself as the ‘god’ who makes an offering to God! If he has treated his brother unjustly Cain’s sin is to break the bonds of kinship. It could be both.

God does say to Cain ‘If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?’ This implies there is a reason for Gods favour to Abel. God’s choice is not random. For all that, Gods favour may seem arbitrary to Cain, if not to us as well. Whatever God’s reason for favouring Abel it is clear it was the cause but not the justification of Cain’s anger.

cain 3

It is his anger that God tells Cain he must rule over. Seeing Cain’s face was downcast – the face expressed his heart – ‘the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? It won’t always be this way’ God explains to Cain. ‘If you rise up you may walk like a person, you may be accepted in the future, but stay down cast and sin is waiting to pounce, anger can consume you like a wild animal. It is not too late.’

Instead of heeding God, Cain takes the first chance for revenge and murder. Not lifting up his countenance but instead rising up to kill.


Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ As God had asked where Adam was not so long ago.

‘I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?’ askes Cain. The answer is no. The only keeper of Israel in the Old Testament is God. God is the keeper of people. So a little like the snakes question to the woman, which brought into question God’s intentions for people, Cain’s question also uses truth to question the idea of God’s responsibility. Cain’s response suggests ‘you should know if you are his keeper’. Cain the first murderer is the first to ask ‘why does God not stop murders?’ The irony does not end there, though God foretold that sin would bring death, it is a human who has taken the first life.

Cain might not be his brother’s keeper but that does not mean he is without responsibility. He has broken God’s intentions for human kinship, the identity of bone of bone and flesh of flesh. It is no accident that the word brother is used seven times stressing the bond that is broken. Cain has set himself up as god over his brother by taking his very life. What greater idolatry can there be?


cain 4

In response God shows first that he is Abel’s keeper. Blood as the conveyor of life belongs to God and cannot be covered up, it cries out for divine justice. The curse on the ground intensifies and for the first time a curse is laid on a human by God. Driven out ‘you will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’ The earth will not grow food because it is polluted by blood. How often it is true that human violence, through war, remains a primary cause of famine and homelessness. Though it is the innocent, so often, who suffer the consequences of violence most.

Secondly, problematic and painful as it seems, God will continue to act as Cain’s keeper. Cain cries for help, and believes he is abandoned by God. But God responds to and disagrees with Cain. God will still have his eye on Cain even if Cain cannot see God. God still protects and hears Cain, even as he exercises justice for Abel. If Cain is struck down so shall his attackers be struck by God. God will continue to keep Cain as he kept Abel.

Jesus calls this God’s perfection in Matthew 5. ‘But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ This is not an easy thing to live with. It challenges our desire for an answer now, for vengeance to be ours and not Gods. But therein lays the challenge and inspiration of the text. God keeps our enemies as well as our friends. Cain’s mark will protect him by warning others away, like the yellow and black stripes of a wasp.

East of Eden in Nod – which means wander – Cain will find his new restless home. Even when he founds a city the implication is that a static body may house a restless spirit. Cain, who tried to settle the land and own it, will now wander homeless where ever he lives. Cain is not guilt free or unpunished.

Cain marries, his wife’s existence is assumed, and she gives birth to Enoch. The generations pass until Lamech and his children. His son’s names and lives give an ancestry for certain skills. These skills in surrounding cultures were often accredited to deities – each trade keeping its own secrets and mysteries. So this text demythologizes the origin of human skills and knowledge. Jabal – meaning flowing or water course – sires nomads and shepherds, both of which groups use ancestral water ways in the desert. Jubal – meaning joyful sound or music – sires harp and flute players. And Tubal-Cain – whose name means forging – forges metals, and so sires blacksmiths.

Lamech, the father of this brood of professions, – whose name means lowering –is intent on things declining! ‘If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.’ Lamech intends to take God’s measure and intensify it into a blood feud, taking justice out of God’s hands. The violence of Cain will increase; the progression of sin will go along with the progression of civilisation. Next to Lamech you see why an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is restrained. But you also see clearly why Jesus said to forgive seventy seven times to Peter (Matthew 18:21-22). Jesus simply meant all times, reversing the bloody vengeance sworn by Lamech.

Coming full circle we return to the grieving parents who have lost both their sons: Adam and Eve. They have a third son, Seth, whose name means appointed – implying a gift from God. It is through him that humanity will continue, but no less sinfully. Seth in turn has a son Enosh – whose name simply means a man, much like his grandfathers.

walking in the garden

‘At that time people began to call on the name of the LORD’ – that is the special name of God given by God to Moses – ‘The God who is’. And so the text returns not only to Adam and Eve but to worship. This reminds us that the Lord was never only Israel’s God. The Lord is the creator and keeper of all, of Abel and Cain, of Jew and Gentiles, of innocent and guilty. Even as God chooses one he is still calling the other to ‘lift up your countenance’ and be accepted; and so it remains a mirror for every age. Cain, like Ishmael and Esau, is outside the direct line of Israel’s antecedents but like the nations of the world he still receives a promise from God his keeper.

All Photos courtesy of Pixels


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